Last season, the Boston Celtics won 40 games and earned the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. But it’s clear that Boston’s best basketball is ahead of them, as they have a talented young core, one of the best up-and-coming coaches in the league and a ton of draft picks. Where does this Celtics team go from here and how will they fare during the upcoming campaign?
Basketball Insiders previews the Boston Celtics’ 2015-16 season.
The rebuilding Celtics arrived quicker to the party than expected last season by earning a playoff berth. The team now heads into training camp with the same young core along with the addition of veteran forwards Amir Johnson and David Lee in the frontcourt. The taste of success should drive the Celtics’ youth movement while the veteran additions will stabilize things during down times. At least that’s how things should work and the reason why a return trip to the postseason should be in the cards for Boston.
2nd Place – Atlantic Division
The Celtics are nicely situated for the future, with a talented group of young players and a ridiculous amount of draft picks. I’m excited to see what direction Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens take the franchise in the years to come. I think they had a strong offseason, adding Amir Johnson (on a very team-friendly deal), David Lee, Terry Rozier, R.J. Hunter and Perry Jones to a team that was already talented. With that said, as I went through and mapped out my playoff predictions, I had Miami and Indiana climbing in and Boston falling out. The Celtics were the hardest team for me to leave out because I do like their roster and I believe Stevens is a fantastic coach. There are just too many talented teams in the East and I couldn’t include them all, so Boston was my first team out of the playoff picture. Still, as I mentioned, this team has a very bright future and won’t be on the outside looking in for long.
2nd Place – Atlantic Division
No one expected the Celtics to make the postseason a year ago, but through a combination of good coaching, hard-working youngsters and a historically awful Eastern Conference, they made their way there and learned a lot about the playoffs in the process. That’s a huge step for a blossoming young team to make, and these C’s now have it under their collective belt. Isaiah Thomas is a star, albeit an underrated one, and the additions of David Lee and Amir Johnson did a lot toward earning the Boston frontcourt some credibility. James Young is super talented, Jae Crowder is an underrated role player and the frontcourt is absolutely stacked with potential. It’s a nifty little team, and one that could take advantage of a weak Atlantic Division this year.
2nd Place – Atlantic Division
The Boston Celtics could have headed for the lottery after moving Rajon Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks last December. Instead, they re-energized the team through trades to land players such as Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder and made a surprising late-season push to lock in the seventh seed in the East. Rather than making a splash with a megastar in free agency, the Celtics added pieces to their puzzle. David Lee and Amir Johnson will bring veteran experience to the team while draft picks Terry Rozier, R.J. Hunter and Jordan Mickey will add to their developing young talent. They also retained Crowder and Jonas Jerebko, who were quick fits last season. Like in the past, the Celtics have logjams at several positions and will have to sort out their starting five as well as rotation. Head coach Brad Stevens goes by the approach of putting the best combinations, not necessarily the best players, out on the court and he will have plenty of lineups to experiment with as time goes on. Last season, injuries on opposing teams opened up space in the Eastern Conference playoff seedings. This time, the competition will likely be tougher. Look for the Celtics to battle for one of the final spots.
2nd Place – Atlantic Division
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: Isaiah Thomas
Thomas is an offensive sparkplug, leading the Celtics in scoring last season without ever starting. After being traded from the Phoenix Suns at the February trade deadline, Thomas averaged 19 points in 26 minutes over 21 games off the bench. As the Celtics’ sixth man, he provides instant scoring without commanding a spot in the starting lineup.
Top Defensive Player: Jae Crowder
Over his career, Avery Bradley has established himself as a lockdown defender. When breaking down the stats, he does have the edge in many categories. This season, though, Jae Crowder gets the nod here. Crowder is the type of feisty athlete who brings the intangibles. Last season, after being traded to the Celtics from the Dallas Mavericks, he offered a James Posey-like (think back to 2008) presence. Crowder isn’t afraid to hustle, grind or throw around his body. Crowder is returning from a knee injury suffered in Boston’s first-round series. When healthy, he stands his ground as a tenacious defender.
Top Playmaker: Brad Stevens
This may seem like a strange pick, but the Celtics’ best playmaker is on the sidelines during the games. Head coach Brad Stevens is one of the brightest minds in the NBA coaching circuit. He quickly transitioned from the collegiate level to the professional game and has already proven his basketball IQ by drawing up crafty plays out of timeouts. Just as the Celtics were dangerous on inbounds plays with Doc Rivers at the helm, Stevens has the know-how to call unexpected plays for his team in clutch situations. A playmaker is someone who sets up players to succeed and makes a team better, and that’s exactly what Stevens does in Boston.
Top Clutch Player: In Progress
Last season, the Celtics’ game-winning attempts were taken by committee. The team has lacked a go-to clutch scorer since the departure of Paul Pierce in 2013. (In fact, it is still common for people to jokingly call “Pierce with the iso” for the final play years later.) Evan Turner stepped in at points last season. This time around, I’d like to see Avery Bradley assume this role. Though known for his defense, Bradley could help take the Celtics a step further by consistently knocking down late-game shots. Isaiah Thomas could be an option as well, since he can create his own shot and score easily.
The Unheralded Player: Amir Johnson
When the Celtics signed Johnson early in free agency, many scoffed at his $12 million per season price tag. Don’t let the dollars overshadow the value of his place on the team. Johnson’s contract is only guaranteed for one year. That financial flexibility in year two is an automatic asset. On the court, Johnson can spread the floor with an inside-outside game. He can also fit into an up-tempo system. Johnson bring veteran know-how, a positive locker room presence and playoff experience. He was an important piece for the Toronto Raptors in recent years and has been underrated for quite some time. Johnson wasn’t the big name signing some fans had hoped for this summer, but his addition is beneficial for the Celtics across the board.
Best New Addition: David Lee
The Celtics traded their highest-paid player who rarely played for a player on an expiring contract who can play significant minutes. That’s the Cliffs Notes version of the Gerald Wallace-David Lee swap with the Golden State Warriors. While Lee didn’t have much of a role on the Warriors, that was not for lack of talent. During the 2013-14 season, he averaged 18.2 points and 9.3 rebounds in 33.2 minutes as a starter. Last season, he was limited to 7.9 points and 5.2 boards in 18.4 minutes, predominantly off the bench (due to the emergence of Draymond Green). The 10-year veteran is also in a contract year, when players often amp up their production. Lee could play out the season with Boston and contribute starting-quality talent, or the Celtics could look to move his expiring deal to get value for the future.
Who/What We Like
Jared Sullinger’s Offseason Conditioning: Sullinger’s conditioning has been under the microscope since he entered the league. Prior to the draft, he was red flagged with back issues that eventually required surgery. Last season, he was shut down with a foot injury. Sullinger has battled his weight issues his entire life and this summer he has been tackling it in the gym, according to posts on social media. Being well conditioned will help Sullinger stay healthy on the court, which is a key to the Celtics’ success.
Tyler Zeller: Zeller quietly improved as his first season with the Celtics progressed, averaging 12 points and six boards in April. The seven-footer is a true center who plays at the basket and offers a presence in the paint. Last March, he hit a game-winning layup, showing the Celtics don’t have to rely solely on outside shooting down the stretch. Zeller is the type of player who puts his nose down and goes about his business without distractions.
Terry Rozier: Many eyebrows were raised when the Celtics drafted Rozier with the 16th pick in this year’s draft. Even though he wasn’t the flashiest name available, he is a good fit for the Celtics’ system. Rozier brings athleticism and an improved outside shot to the team. He made a strong impression during Summer League action and earned praise from fellow guard Marcus Smart as well as coaches.
Training Camp in Europe: The sightseeing and the food are perks of the trip. But the real benefit of the Celtics’ training camp being in Spain and Italy is the chemistry building that will take place. With several new additions, the trip will be an opportunity for the players to get to know one another on and off the court. This is extremely important for the young guards, whose communication with their teammates is critical.
The Celtics have athleticism and speed, which lends itself to an effective up-tempo system. The versatility of their bigs also allows them to spread the floor and create mismatches against their opponents. The Celtics also have combinations where they can go small (Stevens has implemented a three-guard lineup in the past), in tune with the growing trend of small ball in the league.
The Celtics have compiled a lot of “good” pieces, but they lack “great” pieces. In contrast to previous seasons, there is no clear face of the franchise. The Celtics will continue to look for “their guy” down the stretch – the one player they can rely on to take over games. Until then, the task will be handled by committee. Of course, the hope within the organization is that one of the current players will grow into that main role. If that doesn’t happen, they have plenty of assets to offer in hopes of landing one through a trade (or they can hold onto their picks and try to land one through the draft).
The Burning Question
Will the Celtics make the playoffs?
The Celtics made a surprising surge in the second half of last season to lock in the seventh seed in the East. Competition has improved in the conference this offseason, however, and teams such as the Miami HEAT and Indiana Pacers who missed the cut are looking to return. For every organization that makes their way back to the playoffs, one team will drop off. There looks to be a tighter race this season to play past 82 games and Boston is no lock to return to the postseason.
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